At a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Moscow, two high-profile EU politicians highlight the core principles of the EU’s new foreign policy in the post-Soviet space.

European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini arrives for an EU summit in Brussels on Friday, March 18, 2016. Photo. AP

The European Union is seeking new ways to engage Russia, which has increasingly been drifting away from the mainstream of Brussels’ political agenda. On Mar. 14, the EU ministers responsible for foreign, defense, and development policies met in Brussels to discuss how the EU should proceed with the most pressing issues of the day, including how to interact with Russia in the current geopolitical environment.

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This time, the foreign ministers of the EU member-states agreed on a set of five principles that will guide the EU’s foreign policy towards Moscow in the coming years. The declaration of the principles marks the first substantial attempt of the EU in the so-called "Cold War 2.0" era to find a new modus operandi with what is perceived as a more assertive and forceful Russia.

After the EU released the new core principles of its policy towards Russia, the Valdai Discussion Club in Moscow hosted two high-profile EU politicians in an attempt to understand the logic behind the EU’s new foreign policy.

The Minsk dilemma

Implementation of the Minsk agreements remains a common thread in all Russia-related discussions within the EU.

"The full implementation of the Minsk agreements is a key element for any substantial change in our relations," said Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, at a press conference following the ministerial meeting.

At the same time, a prevailing view inside Russia seems to be that Moscow is not directly related to provisions of the Minsk agreements and thus cannot be held responsible for their implementation. Although a part of the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine—a group that was formed to facilitate implementation of the agreements and settle the Ukraine conflict—Moscow remains opaque on how much influence it wields on the political leadership inside Ukraine’s breakaway territories. 

Carl Bildt, former prime minister and foreign minister of Sweden and one of the two high-profile guests hosted by the Valdai Discussion Club in Moscow this week, appeared to believe that the Kremlin has much more influence over the implementation of the Minsk agreements than it will acknowledge.

Bildt talked quite openly about the EU’s stance towards Russia during a meeting with a number of Russian political experts and media representatives.

"In the EU we don’t consider leaders in Donbas to be independent at the end of the day. If Moscow really decides [to implement the Minsk agreements], the leaders in Donbas follow," said the former minister.

The very frank tone of Bildt’s speech seems to reflect the thinking inside the EU’s foreign policy establishment. Contrary to rumors circulating within Russia that suggest the West is increasingly dissatisfied with the poor performance of the authorities in Kiev, the EU policymakers seem to be standing their ground when it comes to pointing out those responsible for failures of the Minsk agreements.

Contrary to the proposition that a limited implementation of the agreements is likely to improve the situation in Ukraine as well as EU-Russia relations in general, the minister’s remarks suggested that Brussels would not accept a partial solution to the Ukraine crisis.

"That [partial implementation of the Minsk agreements] leaves an open route that is dangerous. It is destabilizing for Ukraine, Russia, and the world," said Bildt. Indeed, Sweden's former Prime Minister praised Kiev’s authorities for reforms they undertook in a difficult political and economic environment, particularly the reforms in the energy sector.

Differences of opinion over economic integration projects

A rather surprising suggestion Bildt voiced was that trade and economic integration might be at the center of mutual reservations expressed by Russia and the EU. The fact that the EU has been Russia’s major trade-partner for decades obscured a declining interest of the two parties in establishing close economic ties, according to Bildt.

The former Swedish Prime Minister criticized the Kremlin’s position related to the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), an economic integration project launched in 2015 on the basis of the previous Customs Union.

"I was part of some of these talks with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. He [Lavrov] said very explicitly that they [EAEU] were not interested in going forward with economic [projects] with us [the EU]," said Bildt.

Bildt demonstrated remarkable skepticism talking about the EAEU, an integration project that incorporates the economies of Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and, recently, Armenia. It is indeed common for the EU officials to question the long-term potential of the EAEU.

However, this time it has been one of the rare occasions when a former EU official revealed the alleged reluctance of the Russian political establishment to allow the EAEU to develop economic ties with other parallel integration projects, including with the EU.

"He [Foreign Minister Lavrov] was crystal clear in those meetings [with the EU representatives]: It is not on our agenda going forward with economic [integration]," said Bildt.

Meanwhile, Romano Prodi, the former Italian prime minister and a former president of the European Commission, shared warmer memories of negotiating with the Russian political leadership.

"In some moments Russian support played a decisive role for my personal efforts," Prodi said at the talk he gave at the Valdai Discussion Club on Mar. 18.

Selective engagement

In spite of profound disagreements between Moscow and Brussels, there are areas where cooperation remains so vital it cannot be dismissed. In what seems to be a cautious recognition of the strategic control the Kremlin has gained over the events in Syria and the Middle East, the foreign ministers of the EU member-states agreed to engage with Russia on issues related to the region.

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"The fourth principle we all agreed on is the need for selective engagement with Russia, both on foreign policy issues—this is clear, when it comes to Iran or the Middle East peace process or Syria," said Mogherini.

The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy also listed North Korea, the migration crisis, counter-terrorism, and climate change as the fields where the EU should be cooperating with Russia.

Prodi explained the existence of the willingness of the EU to engage Russia selectively by the latter’s success in establishing itself as an indispensable global player in recent years.

"Russia has reclaimed a leading role on the international stage again. The EU must recognize this substantial development," said Prodi at the Valdai Discussion Club, referring mainly to the role Moscow has so far been playing in Syria and the Middle East.

The former politician implied that there was a general agreement within the EU that major international problems could not be resolved while holding Russia in isolation. The EU must figure out how it can secure Russia’s cooperation in a number of strategic areas, while avoiding conveying a misleading message to Moscow that Brussels will tolerate the excesses of Russia’s foreign policy. The "selective engagement" principle represents an attempt of the EU to maneuver between its willingness to cooperate with Russia and its unwillingness to succumb to pressure from the Kremlin.

Among the five principles declared by the EU Council on Foreign Relations, "selective engagement" with Russia is the one providing tangible opportunities at a time when relations between Brussels and Moscow suffer from continuous political tensions.

"‘Selective engagement’ is a sluice that the EU must widen in order to reach an understanding with Russia on pressing problems of international politics," said Prodi.

Great Game 2.0

The new principles of the EU politics towards Russia included a statement that may represent Brussels’ renewed interest in Central Asia, a region where Moscow traditionally enjoyed a privileged position compared to outside actors.

"The second principle is strengthening relations with our Eastern Partners and other neighbors, in particular in Central Asia," said Mogherini.

If the EU substantiates the statement with concrete policies in the region, the trend will likely irritate Moscow. While it remains unclear whether the EU is up for designing specific policies for Central Asia, Brussels does appear to be reassessing its level of engagement in the region.

The lessons of Ukraine convinced the EU leadership to rethink its polices towards Central Asia, according to Nargis Kassenova, director of the Central Asian Studies Center and associate professor at KIMEP University.

"Previously, the Central Asian countries were referred to [by the EU] as ‘neighbors of neighbors’. This division makes less sense in the light of the recent blows to the Eastern Partnership process," said Kassenova. 

Whether the shift in the EU’s outlook to Central Asia will affect the Kremlin’s policies in the region remains to be seen. What is relatively clear, though, is that the EU’s policy towards the region may well undergo some transformations in the coming future. "There is more appreciation now for the complex external and domestic political dynamics of the region," said Kassenova. The question is whether the change in the EU policies towards Central Asia is going to attract closer scrutiny from Moscow.